Picture of a lighthouse in Cape May, New Jersey.
Natural infrastructure in Cape May, New Jersey. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Policy

Water Resources Development Act

Modernizing America’s Water Management Strategies

Upcoming water resources development legislation is an opportunity for Congress to strengthen communities using nature-based solutions proven to lessen flood impacts, improve natural areas and support the economy.

Through cost-effective, nature-based approaches, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) can deliver projects that protect America’s natural resources, support economic and recreational opportunities and enhance community resilience in an equitable manner. 

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) is an opportunity for Congress to support the work of the Corps and strengthen communities using nature-based solutions.

Congress has demonstrated its commitment to and support for these strategies in previous WRDA legislation, and it must do so again in WRDA 2022 while also ensuring the Corps properly implements prior WRDA requirements for nature-based solutions. 

Infographic of Cape May flood damage.
Nature-based solutions work Flood damage costs at Lower Cape May Meadows went from $143,713 before restoration to $3,713 after restoration. © The Nature Conservancy

Nature-Based Solutions at the Corps

The water resources legislation signed into law in 2016 was a landmark success for advancing natural infrastructure within the Corps.

For the first time, Congress directed the Corps to consider natural and nature-based features—alone or in combination with gray infrastructure—when studying the feasibility of flood-risk management, storm damage reduction and ecosystem restoration projects. WRDA legislation in 2018 and 2020 reiterated and expanded that focus on nature-based solutions.

Conserving and protecting natural resources often provides our most effective and cost-effective line of defense against storms and extreme weather events, all while delivering a host of additional environmental and community benefits. For example, coastal wetlands prevented more than $625 million in property damages during Hurricane Sandy and reduced property damages throughout the Northeast by 10 percent, on average.

Policy Recommendations

Build Greater Climate and Flood Resilience through Large-Scale Levee Setbacks. WRDA 2022 should support efforts to enhance flood protection for local communities and create new environmental benefits through a reconnected floodplain. Specifically, WRDA 2022 should encourage greater use of large-scale levee setbacks by supporting local efforts to voluntarily acquire land necessary for the redesigned levee and providing data to support local levee setback planning. 

Support Local Resilience Efforts through More Effective Corps Technical Assistance. The Corps has tremendous technical assistance capability to offer, especially to underserved communities that disproportionately suffer from growing flooding and water quality impacts. Congress should enhance Corps technical assistance programs and further target them to underserved communities. 

Direct Water Level Management for Added Ecosystem Benefits. Updating the operation plans of Corps dams to maintain navigation while benefiting the environment can help ensure water infrastructure meets today’s needs. Adjusting dam levels by even 1-2 feet can expose thousands of acres of mudflats that create optimal conditions for aquatic plants, fish and wildlife to flourish while providing a host of other benefits. This has been implemented on a small scale with great success, and Congress should direct the Corps to implement this practice more systemically across the upper Mississippi River basin.

Invest in Removing and Repairing Dams. There are over 90,000 dams in the United States, nearly 6,000 of which are considered a high risk to fail with tragic consequences to people and property. Dams also present major challenges to fish passage, endangered species and water quality. Congress should incorporate the 21st Century Dams Act into WRDA 2022 to authorize $1.5 billion for dam removal, $360 million for dam safety maintenance and $25 million to coordinate Corps efforts to add hydropower to existing federal dams.

Consider All Sources of Flooding in Coastal Studies. Coastal flooding is caused by many factors: storm surge, sea level rise, heavy precipitation and other sources. These cause some communities to suffer multiple flooding events from one storm. Current Corps studies are too limited in their assessment of flood factors. To adequately protect coastal communities, WRDA 2022 should direct the Corps to study the full range of compound flooding effects.

WRDA 2022: PROJECT RECOMMENDATIONS

Deauthorization of the Israel River Dam in Lancaster, N.H. The Israel River Dam was built to prevent ice damage but is no longer in use, cracking and poses a safety risk for recreational fishing, paddling and swimming on the river. Removing the dam will reconnect 77 miles of streams and rivers with the Connecticut River’s mainstem and tributaries. TNC recommends Congress deauthorize the Israel River Dam in WRDA 2022. This is the necessary first step for the state to pursue removal.

Costs-Share Assistance for Clairborne and Miller’s Ferry Locks and Dams (Fish Passage), Lower Alabama River, Ala. TNC is the non-federal cost-share partner for the feasibility study of fish passage at the Clairborne and Miller’s Ferry Locks and Dams, which first received funding in fiscal year 2021. However, when the project reaches the construction phase, TNC expects the cost-share requirements will be prohibitively expensive for any potential non-federal sponsor. TNC recommends Congress provide greater flexibility to meet the cost-share requirements of the project to allow the project to proceed to construction while still meeting the originally authorized purposes.